What is racism?
My short story, "Getting Home" was published online at The Saturday Evening Post (Jan/Feb 2017) after receiving 4th Runner Up place in that magazine's "Great American Fiction Contest." As part of the process, Patrick Perry, Editor, asked us to respond to his question: "What was your inspiration for the story?" Although he did not have room to publish my answer, he appreciated it and so I post it below:
"Getting Home" began as a personal journal entry but progressed to a 2004 Summer Graduate Workshop story for Frank Dobson-then at Wright State-that described the water fountain scene - a true relic from my little-league days in Canton, Ohio. A few other details came from memory: McKinley Monument, a Gettysburg trip, Cleveland Indians, Muhammad Ali, comic books, and the Dutch Masters my father smoked. Perhaps the outrage and the moody abandonment that haunt the story arise also from growing up in the rust belt in the 1960s and 70s. The rest is truth rendered as only fiction can promise. Most importantly, the fusing of the personal and the social beliefs and behaviors around racism and the need to both expiate myself and communicate healing drove me to stick with this story. Later, in workshop with Pam Houston at George Mason, the story received her encouraging comments. Off to the cycle of submission-rejection it went, until at last, Patrick Perry saved it! But the story always remained grounded in my consciousness as a challenge to my role as a writer to speak honestly in fiction. Through the edits, I believe it became ever more dense and reflecting of my transformation regarding my role, and I suppose everyone's role, regarding racism.
What is racism? Is it something out there, beyond the city wall or country fence? It must belong to someone else and not to me, right? Or does it lurk in the attics or basements of our memories? Then, once found within, we can choose to clean out--and keep clean--those cobwebbed, moldy, and rotten parts of ourselves.
The inciting incident at the heart of this story came to me as a memory of my little league days in 1960s Canton. I don’t recall the names, but the words, the fight, the water fountain happened. And I stood and watched. Shocked as only a 9-year-old could be by the sheer violence of the act, as well as, the moral wrongness. The N word was bandied about my house and neighborhood and school and I never liked it. But yet, I was guilty myself. Fast forward to today. Years of progressively working harder to expose and liberate those parts of myself that had been held hostage by my own racists thoughts led me to turn the lens not so much outward towards society but on myself. For I believe by consciously choosing to transform our mental outlook, our behavior, our beliefs and treating all people with respect, can we hope to heal as individuals, and as a nation. Racism starts with each one of us, and there to it must end.